Health Care for Residents East of the River Remains a Dire Problem

Demand for a full-service hospital is at a fever pitch among nurses, local residents, and community leaders that want to see the continuation of services at the beleaguered United Medical Center in Southeast.

A call for a meeting of supporters of UMC brought several dozen Ward 7 and 8 residents and hospital staff together on Thursday, July 11 to discuss the hospital’s current status and the future health care needs of area residents.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposal in the 2020 budget to provide a $40 million subsidy to keep the hospital going, was cut to $15 million by the D.C. Council which later voted to restore some of the funding and allocate $22.1 million to the hospital for the year.

The D.C. Nurses Association, D.C. Health Justice Coalition and Health Alliance Network were among the organizations present, with Health Alliance Network’s chairperson Ambrose Lane Jr. facilitating the dialogue.

Council members were criticized for an apparent lack of concern for the quality and access to health care for residents east of the river. Chris Hawthorne, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for 8E05, said, “UMC Hospital is still needed by our residents who cannot make it across the bridge to any of those hospitals.”

Coupled with the closing of Providence Hospital in Northeast, United Medical Center has seen an increase in patients despite its decrease in funding. The hospital has been forced to care for more patients with fewer resources, which many health care officials say contributes to an ever-decreasing quality of care for many more patients.

The hospital has experienced staff reductions, and as a result, wait times have increased and reached a peak of three days at times. Roberta Lenoir, president of UMC’s Nurses Association, said, “We need health care. Time is life. If we don’t have access to healthcare, it can very well mean our very lives.”

The proposed new hospital at St. Elizabeths is not scheduled to open until 2022, but there are serious concerns about future delays. In the meantime, UMC’s funding is expected to continue to decline, leading to closure increasing concerns about where residents east of the river will acquire quality health care.

But defining the health care needs of a community suffering from a wide range of health challenges, led participants to repeat their call for a full-service hospital. Not a “community hospital,” they chimed which is being pushed by Ward 7 Council member Vincent C. Gray because it is unclear what that term means and what services are included.

The push, based upon observation of residents’ needs, includes maternal health, oncology, severe trauma care, renal care, urology, orthopedic, pulmonary, occupational and physical therapy, mental health, and much more. The idea of the hospital being an “anchor institution,” one that provides the community with commercial, economic, and workforce development was also an attractive idea.

The need for help from the community was also urged by those who spoke. Many called for unity within the area on the issue. “Labor doesn’t win any issue with the city government or most employers unless we are aligned with the community,” said D.C. Nurses Association Executive Director Edward Smith.  

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